The issue that progressives suddenly seem very concerned about, i.e. that Donald Trump will corrode America’s faith in our electoral system, is a case of rushing to close the barn door after the horse has already gotten out. Whatever damage Trump has done in the past couple months can’t compare to what progressives themselves have been doing for the past 16 years.
The concern about Trump being expressed, seemingly everywhere this week, is that he will poison the well of democracy, i.e. he’ll convince people a presidential election was stolen. But that’s a concern about something that may happen in the future. What already has happened is that progressive Democrats have been making exactly this case, that a presidential election was stolen, for the past 16 years.
Before going any further, I have to say that I agree that having Trump repeatedly suggest the election is rigged strikes me as a really bad idea. I do think it could influence people to believe the election is tainted and therefore illegitimate. And barring proof of some actual electoral scandal, I don’t think that’s a good thing for America.
So while I don’t approve of what Trump is saying, it seems very clear to me that he’s far from the first person to say it. In fact, it was quickly pointed out after the 3rd debate that progressives have been saying something similar for 16 years. You may recall the phrase “selected not elected” which was shorthand for the idea that Bush was illegitimate because of Bush v. Gore.
There was plenty of push back to the comparison between Trump and Gore. Philip Bump wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled “Al Gore’s fight in 2000 was very different from the way Trump is undermining the process now.” Here’s Bump’s conclusion:
Gore’s fight was a fight over counting ballots, not over an allegation that the election itself was unfair. There were disputes about the intent of voters and some insincere rhetoric on both sides, but there was no question that the system, however flawed, was working the way it was supposed to. There was no question that Gore had won more votes nationally, but there was also no question that the 2000 election was one of the closest in history and that the result was the will of almost precisely half of the voting public. It was a test case for the strength of our democracy, as Gore noted, and we passed — however frustrating to Gore and his supporters then and in the years that followed.
I see what Bump is trying to do here but, intentionally or not, he has completely missed the point. I’d certainly grant that Al Gore wasn’t trash talking the system before the 2000 election. In that way it’s true that Gore and Trump are behaving very differently. I’d also grant that because of how close the election turned out, Gore was justified in waiting to see how the recount process would turn out and that his eventual concession message hit some good notes.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Contrary to Bump’s tidy summary in which Gore does the right thing and his supporters move past their frustration, reality has been somewhat different. This clip put together by Morning Joe offers a few highlights:
All of this electoral skepticism trickles down. When Al Gore showed up to campaign with Hillary in Florida earlier this month, he was greeted with chants of “You won!” from the crowd. You can hear it yourself in this clip and notice that Hillary doesn’t seem horrified by this widespread skepticism of the system. On the contrary she seems to think it’s a hoot:
Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter whether Al Gore is leading the chants of “You won!” That might be even worse, but the point is that lots of people are chanting it anyway and Gore certainly doesn’t correct them for it.
What matters ultimately is that the damage has been done. Faith in democracy has been eroded. The thing that the media and the professional left are suddenly very worried could happen…has happened already. There is widespread belief on the American left that one or more U.S. presidential elections were rigged or stolen.
Will things be even worse if people on the right start saying the same thing about 2016? Yes, I believe that would be even worse for the country, but it hasn’t happened yet and maybe it won’t. If it does then a segment of the right will be landing in territory progressives have been occupying proudly for more than a decade.